The energy demands of dance have received little empirical attention. This may be due to the belief that dancing is more consistent with performance than sport. Given that many dance forms are noncompetitive, it’s not surprising that exercise scientists have infrequently studied this activity. When the energy requirements of dance have been examined, the typical area of focus is dance fitness classes in which the activity is performed at a moderate intensity for approximately one hour. The conclusions of these studies are that dancing depends primarily on the oxidative (aerobic) energy system.
Unfortunately, research of this nature, while meaningful to the fitness enthusiast, does little to inform the work of performing artists and competitive dancers. To what extent do the needs of performers and competitive dancers differ from those of recreational dancers?
There are at least four noteworthy differences. One is that high-level dance performance and competition depend heavily on technical ability and skill development. Whereas fitness dancing can be performed with limited instruction, performance dancing requires many years of specialized training to develop body awareness, flexibility, and joint mobility, among other skills.
A second difference is that performance dancing is generally displayed with high levels of intensity rather than the moderate intensity seen in fitness dancing.
The third difference is the duration of the activity. In contrast to fitness dancing, which is regularly performed for approximately one hour, performance dancing is performed intermittently, often in sequences lasting three minutes or less.
Finally, performance dancing has different aesthetic demands. Body composition and size are important considerations for performance dancers, although many, particularly in ballet, would be considered underweight according to normative height and weight tables. Thus, a constant challenge for the performance dancer is balancing strategies for improving dance technique and athleticism while maintaining minimal body mass.
Preparation for performance dancing should include training of the phosphocreatine and glycolytic energy systems. The phosphocreatine system is responsible for high-intensity, short-duration activities lasting no more than 5 to 10 seconds. Glycolysis is the energy system used for high-intensity activities lasting for durations of up to 2 minutes. Training to improve the functioning of these systems will benefit athletic dancers.